Frontline Rome: Tourists, matrons and migrants at home in the park

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The Independent Online
EACH MORNING at around nine, Nunzia opens up her little green kiosk, rolls up the shutters and switches on the coffee machine. Sometimes she complains that she is tired, as she lays out the tables and the chairs, but she always smiles and business is usually brisk.

Nunzia's cafe is in the middle of the Colle Oppio, the rambling park that rises up a hill across from the Colosseum. Looking down the wide path lined with pines and elms you can glimpse the arches of Rome's most famous monument. The Colle Oppio stands on a lot of Roman history. Near the exit is what little remains of Nero's Golden House; scattered around the upper levels of the park are parts of the Baths of Trajan, and only recently an intact ancient Roman fresco was discovered further around the hillside.

Nunzia's cafe is green and shady in the summer, and even now with winter approaching it's a pleasant spot.

It attracts a mixed clientele. During the week, elderly Roman matrons meet to discuss their grandchildren, old men talk football and politics. It's popular with young mothers with tots in pushchairs or energetic toddlers who chase pigeons, and with the well-educated unemployed or people who can choose their own working hours.

Occasionally you see an averagely famous actor. Policemen on horseback often pull up for a mid-morning coffee, as do their rivals, the black- clad carabinieri (military police), who arrive on immense, purring Gucci motorbikes.

Theirs are the only vehicles allowed in the park. It's a favourite spot for people with pets, mainly dogs, though I did once see a man with a badger on a leash.

On Saturday, newly-weds provide a roaring trade. Brides in extravagant wedding-cake dresses, their hems already grubby from trailing around Rome's sites, are only too glad to sit down for a little rest. Grooms, in sunglasses and suits, are pleased to have a quick cigarette between posing for photographs. They take an aperitif at one of Nunzia's tables, lifting their glasses as their photographer and cameraman click and whir. Sometimes the bride has time for a cigarette, too.

On Sundays it is often hard to find a table. Middle-aged couples browse through the leftie paper Il Manifesto. Fathers with designer-clad offspring attempt to stop them getting dirty, and noisy, extended family groups stop off on their way out to lunch.

Tourists occasionally stumble on Nunzia's little oasis. They look hesitantly at the tables, wondering whether a cappuccino a tavola will break the day's budget. They pore over their brochures and surreptitiously check their blisters.

Some of these visitors venture further into the park, uphill and away from the Colosseum. The first thing that they notice is the rubbish, which, at a second glance, is not rubbish at all, but plastic water bottles, used to collect water from Rome's city fountains, and old sacks and rubbish bags used as windbreaks and blankets for bedding.

For an indeterminate number of immigrants, the park across the road from the Colosseum is home.

They have sought shelter in Roman ruins and set up makeshift homes under trees. They wash in the fountains and leave their clothes to dry onbushes.

Some earn a few lire at intersections, washing windscreens. Others beg.

The Rome city council has tried to tidy up the park, butattempts by the police to move the immigrants on are unconvincing.

Until recently, those living there were mainly men. However last week Romans were shocked to hear that an eight-months pregnant Kurdish woman, with four children, one just 20 months old, was sleeping there.

The woman, Hayat, refused to go to one of the emergency hostels or centres run by the city council or by private charities because she did not want the two oldest children to be separated from her.

In the flurry of publicity that followed, a way was found to accommodate Hayat and her four young children - but not her husband.

As well as the "residents", each day several hundred other have-nots converge on the dark side of the Colle Oppio. They are guaranteed a hot meal at the Caritas soup kitchen. Yesterday it was pasta and beans, chicken, spinach and an apple.

Julian, a fresh-faced Polish man with chipped front teeth, travels 30km each day for that modest meal. As of next week he will not have so far to go. He cannot pay his rent and will probably end up sleeping in the park.

"It's not so bad," says Michel, from Albania. Then he adds with heavy irony: "It'll be summer soon."

Michel wears a warm wool overcoat over a strident blue acrylic sweater. He stands pelican-like on one leg, because one of his shoes has sprung a leak and he cannot afford to fix it. "If I did what some immigrants do - drugs, prostitution - then I would be a wealthy man," he tells me fiercely.

So how does Michel fill his days?

"When I don't look for work, then I walk around the park. I know it as well as my village," he said, offering me a free guided tour.